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Go Green at Home, and $ave Money

By Nancy Sleeth
Author of Go Green, $ave Green


The energy costs of two families living in exactly the same house can differ as much as 100 percent. This means you can halve your energy costs by changing a few simple behaviors.

  • Turn down the temperature on your water heater to 120 degrees. (Look for a little metal box on the side of the water heater.)
  • Do laundry in cold water and you can save up to $63 per year!
  • Turn your refrigerator and freezer to the warmest setting. (We’ve done it for years, with no adverse health effects!)
  • Activate the “sleep” mode on your home office equipment. Use laptops rather than desktops when possible.
  • Turn the thermostat up three degrees in summertime and down three degrees in wintertime — saving $200 per year!
  • Turn off lights, TVs, stereos, and computers when leaving the room.
  • Hang clothes on the line to dry. (Even once a week helps!)
  • Reduce shower time by at least two minutes.
  • Close curtains at night during the winter and on hot days in the summer.
  • Only do full loads when using the dishwasher, clothes washer, and dryer.


Weighing In

When we need to shed a few pounds, doctors advise us to start by stepping on the scale. The same principle applies to lightening our impact on the planet. We need to see where we are, set goals, and measure our progress.

In Appendix A, you’ll find the energy audit worksheet that our family used to begin our environmental journey. Take a few minutes to fill it out now. Once you have a baseline, you can set goals and make changes needed to live a less consumeristic, more God-centered life.

If you want to go one step further, contact your local utility provider to see if they offer energy audits. For a small fee (it’s $15 in our area), they will come to your house and check windows, doors, insulation, and appliances, and leave you with a personalized action plan for saving energy, including estimates of how much the upgrades may cost and how much you can expect to save.


Several organizations offer interactive tools for home energy checkups on their Web sites. Many offer instant feedback.

GO GREEN: Twenty-three percent of the new homes in America are more than 3,000 square feet. The bigger the house, the more resources it consumes.e feet. The bigger the house, the more resources it

The Upside of Being Downwardly Mobile

When we moved to our 1960s ranch house, I left behind a stable full-time teaching position for a part-time, adjunct job at a Christian college, which paid a whopping $8,000 — the only income our family could count on that year. As my husband, Matthew, likes to say, we were the poster family for the downwardly mobile. He had already left his ER position four years earlier, and we were in an economic free fall once again. Needless to say, we did not have a lot of extra money to spend on home improvements. Instead, we first invested in inexpensive projects that had the quickest payback (making insulated curtains for windows, fixing leaky faucets and toilets, changing lightbulbs), and then we used the savings to pay for longer-term investments such as attic insulation and energy-efficient windows. (We took advantage of tax incentives that helped us pay for these larger energy-saving home improvements.) Since then, our electric bills have plummeted, and the savings go on year after year.

SAVE GREEN: Take that first step! An audit can help you save up to 30 percent on your energy bills.


We struggle with the thermostat settings in our family. Moving to Kentucky has made my life much easier because I’m the one who gets cold, but it’s made Matthew’s life more difficult since he has a hard time functioning in heat. We keep the heat low in winter — usually around sixty degrees during the day, and completely turned off at night. On very cold nights, I open the sink cabinet doors before I go to bed to be sure the pipes don’t freeze. In the morning, I dress in multiple layers, brew a pot of hot tea, and use a small electric heater in my home office to take off the chill. In summer, we watch the weather closely — opening windows at night to cool the house down. The humidity in our area seems to increase significantly in the late afternoon and evening, so that’s when we briefly run the air conditioner.

In general, turn down the thermostat at night during the winter and when you’re away from home; in the summertime, turn up the thermostat. Contrary to some common myths, it won’t take any more energy to bring your house back to the desired temperature than it would to leave it at your optimum temperature all day. A programmable thermostat gives you much more flexibility to control your home’s climate, and it pays for itself in one season. Adjusting your thermostat just three degrees year-round will save about $200 on your heating and cooling bills.

Want to Save Money and Energy?

Go After the Energy Hogs First!

Average home energy consumption:

44% -- Space heating and cooling
13% -- Water heating
12% -- Lighting
8% -- Refrigeration
6% -- Home electronics
5% -- Laundry appliances
4% -- Kitchen appliances
8% -- Other home energy users

Green Power

More and more public utilities are offering a green power option that supports renewable resources. Most of our electricity comes from coal. Coal mining destroys mountains and creates far more pollution than any other energy source (mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, or particulates). Call your local electricity provider to see if green power is available in your area, and make the switch. It will cost a bit more, but you will be showing love for our global neighbors and allowing your children and your children’s children to breathe more freely.

This year, our April electricity bill was $14. When our May bill came, Matthew was disappointed that it had gone up to $18. But then I pointed out that our public utility had just added the green power option, and we had elected to pay an extra $5 per month to promote alternative energy sources for our electricity. So our May bill energy usage was actually lower ($13, including mandatory transmission fees and taxes), and we were more than offsetting our 122 kWh (kilowatt-hour) electricity usage for under $20 per month. Conservation pays!

GO GREEN: Loving our neighbors? Americans make up 5percent of the world’s population but use 26 percent of its energy.


It’s a myth that turning lights on and off uses more electricity than leaving them on. We taught our kids to turn lights off whenever they leave a room. Energy-efficient bulbs use one-quarter of the energy and last seven to ten times longer. Watch out for torchères (upright lamps). They often use lightbulbs of 300 watts or more — the equivalent of thirty or more energy-saving bulbs — and present dangerous fire hazards.

About 95 percent of the electrical current for standard lightbulbs creates heat rather than light. This makes energy-saving bulbs not only vastly more efficient, but also much safer. According to an EPA Energy Star fact sheet, if every American home replaced just one standard lightbulb with an energy-efficient bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes, retain more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars. Changing our lightbulbs also saves thousands of lives lost due to respiratory illnesses and asthma attacks, especially among children and senior citizens — the very people God tells us to care for.

Green Light to Savings

Matthew has always been obsessed with light; our family has been the guinea pig of lighting technology. We have tried every new kind of lightbulb on the market, going back more than twenty years to those first energy-saving bulbs that buzzed and gave off a harsh light. When we moved the last time, a friend jokingly suggested that we start a Museum of Lightbulb History.

If you have been reluctant to buy energy-saving lightbulbs because you think they give off an unflattering light, give the new “soft” and “warm” bulbs a try. Their light is indistinguishable from regular lightbulbs — and the wide selection of bulbs available today makes it possible to find the right energy-saving bulb for every fixture.

I’ve often been asked about people who need extra reading light, especially our growing elderly population. Matthew just turned fifty, but he’s had some medical problems with his eyesight that go beyond the normal aging process. No worries! Lightbulbs are available in every imaginable wattage; the last time we went to the hardware store, we saw 300 watt–equivalent compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs — enough for even the most extreme lighting needs. They also now come in different base sizes. Our son Clark’s apartment for medical school came with wall sconces that use candelabra bulbs. We considered buying new sconces, but then found CFL bulbs that screw right in. Several lightbulb manufacturers even make CFLs designed for use on dimmer switches.

Energy-saving bulbs do cost more initially, but the average payback in energy savings is less than a year, even sooner if you use rebates or find them on sale. Conventional bulbs use the most energy, followed by halogens, then compact fluorescents, and the least energy users of all (but not widely available yet), light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. The current LED bulbs do not give off as much light, so we use them in areas that don’t require bright lighting — two in the basement and two outside — but need to be on frequently. Dimming your lights also can cut back on electricity bills.


One of the most common questions we get on the road is about the mercury in CFL bulbs. It’s true: a CFL bulb contains a minuscule amount of mercury (5 mg), about one-fi fth of the mercury found in the average watch battery and less than 1/600th of the mercury found in a home thermostat. However, if you do the math, the tiny amount they contain is dwarfed by the extra amount of mercury that coal-burning power stations emit to power the much-less- effi cient incandescent bulb. A power plant will emit 10 mg of mercury in order to produce the amount of electricity needed to run an incandescent bulb compared to emitting only 2.4 mg of mercury to run a CFL for the same length of time.

Those signs you see when you go fishing, warning children and pregnant women to avoid eating the catch, are not because of toxins dumped into the water. The concern is primarily because of the mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants that settles in our rivers and lakes. To properly dispose of your burned-out CFL, just drop it off at a local Home Depot or IKEA store, or check out for other safe disposal options. Bottom line: using compact fluorescents cuts back on your electric bill and is safer for the environment.

GO GREEN: Energy-saving lightbulbs use about one-quarter the energy of standard lightbulbs and last up to ten times longer..

We waited nearly two years until we could afford to replace the single-paned, aluminum-framed windows that came with our 1960s house. Matthew gave the two window installers an extra $50 each so that they would beef up the insulation around each of the windows and seal them extra tight. The new windows have made a huge difference — our house is quieter and much more comfortable — with lower energy bills than ever. Before selecting an installer, we made sure that the company routinely recycled all of the window glass and aluminum.

In general, double- or triple-pane high-efficiency windows can save your family $340 each year, depending on climate. They also improve comfort in both winter and summer. If you can’t afford to replace windows right away, install storm windows or consider temporary fixes for your leaky windows, such as plastic film kits that act like an interior storm window.


Cut heat transfer by one-third by hanging heavy, lined curtains. In summer, keep the curtains closed during the day, and open both curtains and windows at night for natural ventilation. In winter, closing the curtains at night and opening them on sunny days can have a huge impact on your energy bill, especially if you use insulated curtains.

Lined curtains do an amazing job of keeping the heat in during the winter and out in the summer. According to The Green Book, if we all hung curtains for extra insulation, it would save the same amount of energy that the entire country of Japan uses.


Remember awnings? Yes, they are an investment, but they will keep your home so much cooler during summertime, especially if you do not have energy-efficient windows. When speaking at a college in North Carolina, I noticed that all of the older homes still had beautiful, practical awnings, while not one of the newer homes did — our grandparents knew best! Other energy-saving summer options include fabric patio covers and solar window screens. Do a little research to see whether or not these are available in your area.

Energy monitoring

How low can you go? You can get a real-time reading of your home energy use by purchasing an energy monitoring device such as The Energy Detective (TED), which costs about $140. After being hooked up to your circuit breaker box by a handy homeowner or electrician, TED provides a small display that shows your household electricity usage in real time, and then projects your monthly bill. Just as the energy-consumption display on our Toyota Prius has taught me to adjust my driving habits, TED claims that real-time energy feedback can help reduce your energy consumption by as much as 15 to 20 percent, translating into savings of hundreds of dollars. And it can be a fun way to get the whole family on the energy-saving bandwagon.

The bottom line: if you can measure it, you can manage it. Make small adjustments throughout the day and see how quickly the savings add up. If you want to know exactly how much energy your appliances use, including when they are “off,” you can purchase a Kill A Watt Electricity Usage Monitor for about $20 (available at and other Internet stores). Just plug the appliance into the meter, and it will help you see where your energy dollars are going. Spread the savings: offer to lend the watt meter to your church facility manager, extended family, and neighbors. For instance, a side-by-side refrigerator will almost always use more energy than a refrigerator with a freezer on the top or bottom of equivalent size. And size does count — in general the smaller the appliance, the less energy it will use.


Hire an energy-performance contractor. The Department of Energy and EPA have started a program called Home Performance with Energy Star. These specially trained contractors conduct a whole-house energy audit and make specific recommendations for saving energy in your home. For an additional fee, some contractors will then implement the suggestions that you approve. What a great example of the growing green economy and job market! To see if the program is available in your state, visit


While the government no longer permits phosphates in laundry detergents, they do allow them in automatic dishwasher soaps. When phosphates end up in rivers and coastal areas, they can “fertilize” algae populations, leading to large algal blooms, which in turn can choke out plant and animal life in aquatic ecosystems and contribute to aquatic dead zones. But there is good news: store-brand, environmentally friendly cleaning products now cost about the same as standard cleaning products. Back when we still used a dishwasher, we squirted about one teaspoon of phosphate-free dishwashing liquid into the detergent dispenser instead of dishwasher powder, and the dishes always came out sparkling clean.

Paper products

Our family uses an average of one roll of paper towels every two to three years. Rather than paper, we use cloth towels for cleaning up. We drain bacon on paper grocery bags. When we do purchase paper products, we make sure they are made from recycled paper. We purchase our 100 percent recycled toilet paper in bulk from an office supply store — it’s cheaper than “regular” toilet tissue and oh-so-much better for the forests.

For parties, draft a couple of teens to wash and dry dishes so you don’t have to rely on paper products. We fed fifty teenagers lasagna for Clark’s birthday party last year, with Emma and her roommate keeping a fresh supply of clean dishes available all night. Don’t have enough plates? Ask friends to bring their own, or borrow a set from a neighbor.


From Genesis to Revelation, it is clear that God loves trees.

Trees are mentioned one thousand times in the Bible, more than any living thing other than humans. The symbol of God is the tree of life, Abraham met the Lord under the oaks of Mamre, Moses heard God speak from a bush that would not burn, and Deborah held court under palm trees.

Before his ministry started, Jesus worked with trees; at the end of his ministry, he stretched out his calloused carpenter hands for our salvation and hugged a tree — the cross he bore for us. Using recycled paper is one way of showing that we love what God loves!

Nancy Sleeth

Nancy Sleeth is the co-director of Blessed Earth, a faith-based environmental nonprofit that focuses on creation care. Following a spiritual and environmental conversion experience, Nancy and her family radically altered their ecological footprint, reducing their electricity use to one-tenth and their fossil fuel use to one third the national averages. Prior to heeding this calling, Nancy served as a director for a Fortune 500 company and as an educator and administrator at Asbury College.

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